There’s a dark secret behind those marvelous mansions, meticulously restored Victorians and million dollar colonial revivals that populate our wealthiest neighborhoods: A history of restrictive zoning and land-use laws that have tightened the state’s housing supply and sent real-estate prices soaring. “You have probably heard the term ‘snob zoning,’ ” says Katherine Levine Einstein, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University, who believes current policies have even more sinister origins. “They were ways to prevent poor people and people of color from moving into these communities.” We chatted with Einstein about what her recent study on planning and zoning meetings from 2015 to 2017 found about Greater Boston’s neighborhoods. 

Who’s attending these meetings? They were institutionally unrepresentative of the broader community. They are overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new housing: Only 15 percent of the attendees showed up in support of new housing. Second, they … are much more likely to be white homeowners who are men and longtime residents.

Were there any towns where this was better or worse? First, no one is doing a great job of this. In Cambridge—where I see the most support for new housing—only 40 percent of attendees were in support of it. This is in contrast to a ballot referendum in 2010 … where 80 percent of Cambridge residents adopted a pro-affordable housing position. So, juxtapose the 40 percent and 80 percent, and you see that even the folks in Cambridge meetings are pretty unrepresentative of the broader community. On the other hand, you have places like Lawrence, which is 75 percent Hispanic, and we found that only one person who showed up to the zoning board meetings was Hispanic.

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